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What Indigenous Beauty Means To Me

Introducing Every Day Indigenous, Refinery29 Canada's series centering and celebrating Indigenous people. Through strength and resistance, comes joy. It’s time to share that.

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My relationship with beauty began with my mother. She didn’t wear much makeup — she used to say she was so blind without her glasses and she didn't know how to use it — but I can still remember the glass bottle of liquid foundation with the green top that she’d put on for work or for special occasions.
She was my beauty role model, because outside of her, there were few people I could look up to. My coming-of-age took place when the standards of beauty were white — except for a select few women of colour like Naomi Campbell and Canadian model Lana Ogilvie.
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Even as I tiptoed into the world of beauty as a preteen, when I began to collect Lip Smackers in every flavour and devoured every makeup story in teen magazines, I was always left unsatisfied. The women smiling up at me from the covers of YM and Seventeen never looked like me. Their features and skin tones never matched mine, the white skin, teeth, and blonde hair. The tips almost always centred white women. Other cultures and ethnicities never showed up on the pages and screens I was desperately trying to find myself in.
Thankfully, the world has slowly begun to consider other versions of beauty, challenging the long-held conventions of who can wear makeup and who can create makeup. There are so many incredible people in the beauty space that I’m inspired by, including beauty influencer Delainee Antoine-Tootoosis, Ah-Shi Beauty Founder Ahsaki Chachere, and Two-Spirit TikTok influencer Kairyn Potts.   
They are a snapshot of how beautiful Indigenous people can be. My only regret is that the younger version of myself didn’t get to see them growing up.
Here, I spoke with four people about where their love of makeup began and their definition of Indigenous beauty. 
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Photographed by Tenille Campbell.
Jenn Harper, Founder & CEO of Cheekbone Beauty
"My earliest memories are of playing with my mum’s makeup and the smell of the CoverGirl compact palettes she used to wear. I remember rubbing my fingers on the palette; the powder felt soft. I’d take the little foam brush it came with and pretend I was doing the same thing my mother was doing. As I grew older, I loved heading to the drugstore. I would play with the cherry liquid lip glosses, I always loved the feeling of makeup. In 2008, when I was just starting my career in food sales, I wrote down that my dream job was to be the CEO of a major cosmetics company.
"My 15-year-old daughter is the audience of Cheekbone. I've always wanted to create a better space for her and future generations to live in, and that's been a big part of Cheekbone’s purpose. [The company donates 10% of its profits to the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society.] It's for all these Indigenous kids. I never want any of them to feel like I did as a child, estranged from my Indigenous family, I never felt like I fit in. I want all kids to feel like they belong.
"Indigenous beauty has nothing to do with what is on your face or what you look like; it's about what’s happening on the inside. If you think about the seven grandfather teachings, it’s about understanding characteristics like humility and courage are a daily practice. I nourish myself daily. It starts with my mornings in nature, being surrounded by trees, and the smells of the forest. Being outside allows me to take time to really think deeply about the beautiful things that creation has to offer.
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"I love the ritual of putting my makeup on and having that time to myself, even if it is just a five-minute face of lip gloss, mascara, and a quick contour of the cheekbones. It helps me understand self-care, which for me is about connecting with myself so I can be better for the ones I love in my life and community."
GO-TO PRODUCT: "A product that I absolutely love is our newly-reformulated Cheekbone Sustain Lip Gloss in Sweetgrass. It meets Sephora’s clean standards, all-vegan standards, and our definition of being on a sustainability journey. It's so nourishing and enriched with so many incredible oils, including sunflower oil. When I see people wearing Cheekbone Beauty, it’s a circle where we’re putting out this love and kindness through the brand into the world and we're certainly getting it back, and that fuels us to keep going."
Photographed by Tenille Campbell.
Shanese Steele, Activist, Educator
"My love of makeup came from watching my mum get ready to go on her weekly date nights with my dad. I would watch her put on her eyeshadow, the way she gently added blush to her cheeks. She always had eyeliner and lipstick on. As a child, I really wanted to look like her. At the time she had extremely short hair, so I cut mine off, too. She’s Anishinaabe and Metís, with these beautiful, brown, almond-shaped eyes that I always envied. And she has a face that lights up when she smiles or laughs. She’s so beautiful. She taught me to be beautiful.
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"She has endured more than anyone should have to, and yet she's still so filled with love. I do equity work now and I don't think I would do it if it wasn't for watching my mum love and nourish community my entire life. She taught me to nourish my spirit by ceremony and connect myself to my ancestors. As someone who's Afro-Indigenous, I'm able to add ceremony and ancestral work in two ways, whether a full moon ceremony with my Anishinaabe community members or tending to my altar with my ancestors from my Black side.
"I'm getting emotional because Afro-Indigenous beauty isn’t something we always see. But it’s timeless, effortless, and it's ancestral. When you see Afro-Indigenous people, you see the resilience of two communities who have endured so much, and who are still able to thrive, survive, and exist in a world that oftentimes tells us that we can't.
"I see makeup as a form of artistry and as a way to express myself. We paint stories on our faces and how I'm feeling that day determines how sharp my eyeliner is or how dark my lipstick. I also use bear grease as part of my beauty routine — it’s commonly found in Anishinaabe households. I use it in the same way that you might use oil for stretch marks, but I also mix it with my hair care and that’s something that my mum passed down to me. I have a friend who is from Hiawatha First Nation and he usually sends it to me."
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GO-TO PRODUCT: "My mum recently bought me Kalkáy Wild Rose Facial Oil. It’s from an Indigenous business, Sḵwálwen Botanicals. I also use the Kalkáy Wild Rose Toner. I always try to buy Black and Indigenous-made and I love Sḵwálwen Botanicals because it incorporates traditional plants from the West Coast, allowing me to feel like I'm connecting to something when I'm using it."
Erica Violet Lee, Poet and Scholar
Photographed by Nadya Kwandibens.
"This idea that if you're into feminine things, you can't be an intellectual is so ingrained in Western culture. I would love to see that dismantled. Being a young scholar and an academic, I remember the first time that I saw a woman professor wear bold eye makeup to class, and the first time I saw an Elder with long, bright pink false nails, I thought, That's the kind of Elder I want to be.
"My nana gave me my first bit of makeup as a kid; it was a tube of hot pink Revlon lipstick in a gold package. I was young, and the first thing I wanted to do was smear it everywhere, on the walls and myself. That colour is evocative of childhood, play, curiosity, and experimentation.
"I do political theory now and have a degree in social-justice education, so my mindset is to turn everything into political resistance. The action of doing my makeup and taking time for that care and beauty is such a political space, as a femme, queer, and Two-Spirit woman.
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"I’m Plains Cree, or Nêhiyaw, and I started doing research and learning about the traditional face paint that warriors would have worn and the beautification traditions of my people and I thought, This is my war paint.  There's a great poem by Patricia Monture and the final line is: I hide my face, behind a mask/ of Revlon “easy, breezy, beautiful”/ I hide. / (Or maybe, I just like “war paint.”) That poem sticks with me, because it is empowering and feels like political resistance.
"Being urban Native means we don't have as much access to ceremonies or the land as we should, so we have to create our own rituals as we move through the world. I take time for my inner beauty throughout my day by creating little ceremonies wherever I go, whether it's meditation, restorative yoga, smudging, or learning about the types of beauty products that my ancestors would have used, like berries for cheek or lip stain."
GO-TO PRODUCT: "I have two favourite products. Sunscreen is the ultimate act of taking care of yourself. No matter your skin tone, everybody needs a good sunscreen. And my second would be Cheekbone Beauty’s Liquid Lipstick in Melina. It’s named after Melina Laboucan-Massimo, who is one of my good friends, and it's just the perfect shade of nude pink."
Photographed by Tenille Campbell.
Arielle Twist, Artist
"My love of makeup first came from a place of necessity. Makeup was access to safety, to that narrow view of what womanhood is. When I really think about it, it makes me emotional because I feel like makeup is armour. It really feels like something I need to exist.
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"I started wearing makeup in middle school before transitioning, before the trans tipping point. I was out and queer, and my girl friends’ mums were super supportive and would give me makeup and tips. I’d watch my aunties apply black eyeliner, and now I always have a cat eye. I like the sharpness it brings to my face.
"My whole practice is about unapologetically expressing my beauty, and how I feel about myself in my body, including all the complexities that come with it, the grief, love, and insecurity. As an Indigenous trans woman I don’t live up to the expectation of desirability and colonial beauty standards, but I’m acknowledging my desirability and my beauty. 
"My definition of Indigenous beauty is Indigenous women that look like me and my family, fatter and non-conforming. Indigenous women who look like women on the rez, rocking it. I sit with the knowledge that Indigenous trans people are needed. Our communities need Trans Elders and that renewed my will to live for becoming a Trans Elder."
GO-TO PRODUCT: "SUVA Beauty UV Primaries Hydra FX. Another Indigenous trans woman told me about it — there’s something so beautiful about a really sharp red highlight and playing with colour. It’s a whole different level of expression and experimentation that I’m really here for right now."

These interviews were edited and condensed for clarity.

The Refinery29 Canada team acknowledges that we are settlers on the land now known as Canada. We stand in solidarity and support of Indigenous people and we recognise that all of us have an ongoing part to play in reconciliation. We thank the Indigenous community for allowing us to live and work on their land.
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